Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, 25 and just out of La Scala's academy, was showered with flowers for her debut performance in the title role of Bizet's "Carmen" on La Scala's gala season opening night Monday.
One flower even hit Rachvelishvili squarely on the face. Showing surprise, she brushed her cheek with a laugh, knelt before the crowd in gratitude and then blew kisses back.
"I heard and I understood that she had a special voice, but talent isn't enough, and she showed herself to be a great artist," conductor Daniel Barenboim told reporters backstage. "The Georgian should be proud to have a voice like that, and this evening she should go out into the piazza as if she won a world medal."
Barenboim triumphed with his second gala opening since becoming La Scala's principal guest conductor. The crowd applauded for nearly 15 minutes, raining flowers and shouts of "Bravi!" down on tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Don Jose, Uruguayan baritone Erwin Schrott as Escamillo and soprano Adriana Damato as Micaela _ as well as the conductor himself.
"This Carmen will be legend," Barenboim prophesied afterward.
Tenor Pacido Domingo, passing by backstage, said he liked the production very much. "But I need to preserve by voice for the day after tomorrow," he said before rushing out. Domingo is celebrating 40 years at La Scala with a gala performance on Wednesday.
But the applause for "Carmen" was punctuated by boos for the stage direction by Emma Dante, a 40-year-old theater director known in Italy for her experimental productions who was making her debut in the opera world. Before taking the job, the Sicilian-born Dante had never set foot in La Scala.
Dante's scenery was spare, but she filled the stage with dancing choruses and thought-provoking imagery. There also were strong allusions to Catholicism, including a swinging incense burner and a shattered crucifix. In the final scene, Don Jose rapes Carmen under the gaze of a clergyman in the background. The sequence is so explicit that it risked overshadowing the climax event, Carmen's murder at the hands of her former lover, Don Jose.
Barenboim showed his solidarity by bringing Dante back out through the closed curtain to face the audience, holding her arm tightly as she rested her head against his shoulder. The crowd of cultural figures, captains of industry and political leaders sitting the orchestra seats clapped loudly as if to drown out the boos from La Scala's upper most balconies, populated by the opera house's notoriously harsh amateur critics.
If it was too original for some in the crowd, La Scala's management stood firmly behind Dante.
"It will become a classic," said general manager Stephane Lissner. "After two or three performances, everyone will understand the importance of the work that was staged today with the direction of Emma Dante."
Umberto Veronesi, Italy's most famous cancer researcher and a former health minister, said the opera had created "a great atmosphere of reinvention. Finally, a little light after an atmosphere of conformity in these last years."
One of the most highly anticipated cultural events of the season in Europe, the gala premiere is often attended by foreign dignitaries, captains of industry and cultural icons. Italian president Giorgio Napolitano was joined by Gabon President Ali Bongo and Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade.
Author Dan Brown, who has used Italy as a backdrop for his novels "The Da Vinci Code" and "Angel and Demons" was in the audience. Asked if he was taking inspiration for future novels, Brown said: "It is quite possible. I'm mesmerized by this."
Among the details that caught his eye: "The architecture, the art, and of course you have an endless cast of characters that can be built on," Brown said during a break.
By tradition, La Scala opens it season on Dec. 7, the day honoring Milan's patron saint Ambrose. In contrast with recent years when labor disputes and tenor drama threatened to overshadow the event, this year's premiere seems to be all about the music.
Rachvelishvili mad her debut on La Scala's stage as the feisty, independent Carmen. Born in Tbilisi, Rachvelishvili has told Italian media that her musical preferences ran toward rock music, and that she had to be pushed toward classical.
Barenboim said recently that she was being auditioned for a lesser role when he realized: "Why Mercedes? She is our Carmen."